Declan 'Paddyman' O'Sullivan thanks Dubai for living his dream
After 16 years, creator of Irish musical persona Paddyman and Golden Visa holder bids farewell to UAE
IT WAS A frantic St. Patrick’s Day 2008 when, putting together an article on how to celebrate in Dubai, we first happened across Declan O’Sullivan aka Paddyman. The traditional Irish musician had already been making a name for himself with one-off gigs about town, but the year in question decided to make more of a publicity push in order to begin turning a paid hobby into a career. It only took a brief conversation before an enduring relationship was established. Over the subsequent decades we have witnessed O’Sullivan and his creation evolve from fake ginger beard and novelty leprechaun hat wearing event singer, to UAE circuit firm fixture to local entertainment statesman; black suit and all. Countless nights in Dubai’s legendary Fibber Magee’s would never be complete until a parody rendition of Hotel California (Welcome to the Hotel Burj Khalifa) or Gangnam Style (Irish Paddy Style) were belted out to their fullest before, with perhaps more mature sensibilities, full concerts at venues including the QE2 Theatre became hot tickets.
O’Sullivan’s exploits were sufficient to capture the attention of Ireland’s RTE Television and Britain’s Channel 4, both making programmes on expat life in the Gulf, and recently led to the highest honour: qualifying for a Golden Visa as a result of continued artistic merit contributing to Dubai’s cultural landscape.
While not the end for Paddyman in the UAE, O’Sullivan has decided to move to pastures new in Canada, so we thought it would be fun to look back on the time we have enjoyed together.
Going back to the beginning in Dubai, at what point did you decide to really make a go of the character Paddyman?
Soon after I arrived in Dubai in October 2005 I started playing music for pubs and events in the city. In the initial years I noticed there were three types of music people wanted depending on the audience and circumstances: traditional Irish songs, singalong hits and musical comedy.
Funny songs were especially popular among the British and Irish expat community. However I was often conscious of inadvertently offending people due to some of the impromptu comedy and content of the songs. Therefore, just as I was about to sing some of those songs, I would put on a funny leprechaun hat with a beard so the audience could clearly see I was joking and in character. By 2010 that part of the gig had become so popular that the Paddyman character and songs took up most of the show and I generally became known as the Paddyman.
Do you think it was easier to start up as a performer in the UAE back then, or has the environment evolved to make it better for singers to have regular gigs here?
In many ways I like the permit system in Dubai, where venues have to apply in advance before they can host performers. It hasn’t changed much over the last 16 years and can be a barrier to entry for musicians just passing through Dubai. But since the permit is valid for one or three months, venues are likely to find a good local band or performer and give them multiple gigs over that time to balance out the cost. That system helps develop musicians and a local music scene. The environment has changed in recent years to include music sessions, where musicians can drop in and play one or two tunes, which is great for the general community.
However for professional musicians I’d say the environment now is harder. Some see it as a reflection of Dubai becoming a more developed market like other big cities. There are more venues to play in now and some good music venues where professional entertainers can sell out a music show.
Were you ever hesitant about the name, Paddyman?
For those who don’t know, the name “Paddyman” is synonymous with “Irishman”. So many people named Patrick (Paddy) emigrated to places like the UK and USA over the years that Irish people were often called “Paddies”. I am sensitive to that and the image of Ireland I portray. I am very proud of my Irish heritage and work hard to communicate that celebrate it on stage. Besides parodies and funny songs I also sing songs in the Irish language, play traditional tunes and include Irish dancing and poetry in shows.
Irish people are renowned for working hard and playing hard. We are friendly and not afraid to laugh at ourselves. I view Paddyman as a catalyst for happiness through music and creativity. People love the Irish. After all Paddy’s Day is the most celebrated National Day all around the world!
What was your background in music at home before turning it into a career here in the UAE?
I started playing music aged 15 with my father in small pubs in Ireland. Over time I slowly built my repertoire of songs at weekend gigs while in college. So when I moved to Dubai 16 years ago to be a salesman I used to bring my guitar with me as I travelled around the region. Clients loved it! But five years later I decided to follow my dream of becoming a full time musician in Dubai.
This was made possible because of the support and weekday gigs at key venues, most notably Fibber Magee’s Irish pub and Barasti in Dubai and PJ’s in Abu Dhabi. On weekends I often played for festivals and events in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Singapore and sometimes back in Europe. 10 years have passed and I have performed live for over one million people. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support I had from those great venues in Dubai.
Tell us about the Golden Visa. What does it mean to you to have one? Now you’re living in Canada, will it be useful to return to Dubai?
My good friend Padraig Downey (founder of Danu theatre group) mentioned that he had received a Golden Visa for his work developing the theatre arts scene in UAE. He suggested I should apply for one too on the basis of my work in music.
I was honoured when I received a letter from Dubai Arts and Culture nominating me. On a practical level it makes it easier for me to maintain my ties with Dubai. For my musical career it has encouraged me to continue my growth as a performing artist, songwriter and live show producer. Over the next few years I will perform cabaret style shows in theatres and at the best folk festivals across North America from my base in Niagara, Canada. I will certainly fly back to Dubai at least once a year to share my new shows and songs with those great friends and fans who have supported me over the years!
There must be countless memories of performing here over the years but do any really stick out?
In 2018 I had the pleasure of opening for Stereophonics at Dubai Media City Amphitheater. Specially for the occasion we formed a nine-piece ‘Trad band’ (Paddyman & Friends) comprising the best traditional folk musicians I knew in the UAE. We had banjos, fiddles, accordions, whistles and pipes & more all playing our Trad versions of modern songs and a few originals. It was super fun!
What do you have coming up?
My first recording project in Canada will be an album of original folk and Irish songs. It will be recorded in Nova Scotia by Juno award winning producer Daniel Ledwell. The album will feature songs and music that I have written over the last 18 months. One of my favourite songs was originally a poem by WB Yeats that I put to music.